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The Challenging Previs of ‘Spectre’

IO Entertainment head and previs supervisor Brad Blackbourn describes how director Sam Mendes used previs for action sequence planning and more on the latest James Bond franchise film.

From the Day of the Dead opening sequence to the climactic night-time Thames chase, Sam Mendes’ Spectre, the latest hit in the James Bond film franchise, is a non-stop thrill ride, mixing practical and visual effects within scenes shot all over the world.

As the film’s sole previs team, IO Entertainment was tasked with visualizing and planning numerous key action sequences, which involved recreating locations in 3D as well as animating and matching action against virtual versions of camera lenses and camera rig movement. Their previs was critical on such a live-action stunt-based production, providing various departments a clear idea of how sequences might look and helping establish sequence blueprints with identified constraints, safety requirements and other key details. Their work was used in building sound stages, backlot sets and setting up camera locations as well as determining the size and choreography of on-screen pyrotechnic explosions.

In a recent conversation, IO Entertainment director and previs supervisor Brad Blackbourn shared his thoughts on his team’s extensive work on the film.

Dan Sarto: How was previs used on the film? How was IO Entertainment involved?

Brad Blackbourn: IO Entertainment was involved with Spectre from early pre-production and wrapped a few weeks before the end of principal photography, which ended up being just under a year in total. Sam Mendes wanted a different approach to previs on Spectre compared to previous projects, so some key folk in the Art Department and VFX recommended he talk to us.  When we met he was clear that he wanted to strip unnecessary detail from the previs and have it proactively support the multi-departmental planning process on the ambitious and hugely complex action sequences. 

This incredibly open, collaborative process meant we could share information very freely across the show and collaborate with multiple department heads to leverage the previs for a sequence. With a little tweaking and re-purposing, the same previs could serve many purposes - stunts planning, SFX rigs, Art Department builds, camera/grip equipment, VFX integration, location permissions, production logistics, etc.  So for a sequence where we might do the first passes focusing on story and camera with Sam and Hoyte van Hoytema [the film’s cinematographer], we could then layer in other information or run off a version that had different visual content for the use of a specific department. 

The collaborative atmosphere also meant crew from various departments could pop by and ask if we had any information about parts of a sequence they were working on.  We could usually produce some top-down plans with annotations, measurements and such for them quite quickly.  In order to truly respond to the needs of the show as it progressed, we came in with no preconceptions of what the process should be or what the best team make-up should be.  We re-molded the process and team as required, so our team fluctuated between one and four people during the ebb and flow of pre-pro and principal photography.  Different artists joined for certain stages along the way. I supervised and along the way I was joined by great previs artists: Jorge del Valle, Soren Pedersen, Jen Kitching, Dafydd Morris and Rebecca Rose.

The key thing to me that stands out about this project is not specifically the visual contents of the final "previs movie" of any given shot, but rather the multitude of other quicktimes, plans, diagrams and component breakouts that we also produced for the different departments and processes.

DS: What were some of the main sequences you handled?

BB: Spectre's seamless opening sequence was a massive technical and logistical challenge. Working across the production, we pieced together how it could be achieved and what staging, choreography, equipment and set-builds were needed.  After hundreds of iterations we worked out how to get the shot, which involved a complete build over of the roof of several buildings in Mexico City so the Technocrane could track alongside Bond as he ran above crowds almost 100ft below.

For the complex aerial fight sequence over the Zocalo, the production needed to find a way for stunts to be performed on location with a helicopter looping, rolling and flipping just meters above the 16th century cathedral and the National Palace, dodging a 100ft-high flagpole and then swooping below roof height in the narrow side streets. After choreographing the complete aerial sequence with the stunt and SFX supervisors, we shot aerial and ground-based coverage from dozens of virtual cameras with several different lenses, to isolate the ideal angles. From the selects we prepared maps accurate to within 12 inches of all required camera locations for the local production crew to acquire access permissions."

DS: What were the main challenges you faced on the film?

BB: The sequences we focused on were incredibly complex and the material we were producing was driving massive logistical plans, so the work needed a huge amount of openness and collaboration between all the departments.  Luckily, Spectre had the most supportive and cooperative atmosphere I have ever seen on a project of this size.  It really showed the benefits of the long-term relationships and protective embrace that the Broccoli family has maintained during the history of the franchise.  There's a lot of trust that's been built. Some of people we worked with had parents that got their start on a Bond film and some of the senior crew have been on most of the Bond movies since the 70s!  It was a great honor to be invited into the Bond "family."  

DS: Were there any technical innovations of special digital tools you used on the project?

BB: From ongoing discussions we had with Sam during the course of doing previs on the film, we ended up designing a small, handheld virtual camera system, the KAMIO, that allows directors, production designers, cinematographers and art directors to walk around a virtual version of the sets or environments while seeing the camera view of that set on the device's screen.  We can then pipe the display onto a large external monitor for meetings and discussions and everyone can pass the virtual camera around to explain what they're thinking, change lenses, jump to different locations, move the camera in very subtle ways or fly it over the scene like an aerial shot.  We treat it like scouting a life-size virtual "white card" model from the art department.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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